2014 saw The New Yorker’s longtime China Correspondent Evan Osnos publish his first book, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China exploring the dynamics and individuals that have moved China forward since its opening up to the world. The book has been widely acclaimed by China watchers, won the US National Book Foundation’s National Book Award for Nonfiction and even found its way on to the shopping list of Barack Obama.
China Economic Review caught up with Osnos after his appearance at the Shanghai International Literary Festival earlier this year to speak with him about life in and after China as he transitioned to a new posting in Washington, DC. As 2014 draws to a close we offer a look back at a revealing interview exploring the themes of Osnos’s book, the experience of being a foreign correspondent in China and the life of constant surprise the country offers to those willing to brave the unknown.
You’ve homed in on this theme of the rise of the individual in China. Why was it that you picked up on as opposed to another aspect?
I think as a reporter you basically gravitate to the things that seem most essential to the moment you inhabit, whatever that moment is. If I’d been here 60 years ago, I think the thing that would’ve grabbed me was the power of charismatic political leadership, the way that was shaping the country in decisive ways. That’s simply not the moment I was here.
The thing that was most astonishing about this moment in China was the fact how little the government was able to dictate the terms of the course of the country, which sounds counterintuitive; this after all is a country in which the government is perhaps arguably stronger than in any other major economy on earth. But when you burrow into the lives of individual people, what you discover is that they are – for the first time really in the history of this country –to a greater degree than possible before, the authors of their own experience, and then they run up against the limits of what’s possible.
So for me it was the center of gravity, it was what was happening in all the lives around me. I never heard one of my friends say to me that “this is a time in which I am summoned in service of some greater project, some greater national project”, even the ones who are nationalistic, and I have friends like that – they’re the ones who are defining the terms of that nationalism.
The book carries the subtitle ‘Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China’. What do you think is the significance of those three things for Chinese people?
In some ways those three ideas are the engines that are propelling China through history at this moment, and I mean that in a very specific way. If we go to the moment when contemporary China began in effect, 1979, that was the moment when the country gave permission to people to pursue fortune in the ways we now see all around us.
As they assemble the basic sort of satisfactions that they need in their lives, inevitably people begin to wonder: “Who sets the rules? Is my property protected? I’ve now assembled these things, the things I wanted so badly, and are they safe?” And the only way you’ll be able to know if your property is safe is if you have information – information is power in China in a way that it hasn’t really been before and people now have the tools to be able to pursue it themselves, so that’s what they’re doing.
Then the last part is: As they’ve answered the most basic questions in their lives about how politics is organized and begun to ferret out some of the facts of the past and present, then they begin to ask the deeper questions, the bigger questions about what it means to be an individual, to be a citizen: What’s my relationship to my neighbor? What’s my relationship to my parents? What’s my relationship to the past? That’s the pursuit of faith; it’s a moral pursuit.
The cover of the book features the Lujiazui skyline here in Shanghai. What’s the story behind the choice of image?
The cover photo is by a brilliant photographer named Sim Chi Yin who is based in Beijing. The goal of the image, which I think she fulfilled brilliantly, was to try to capture the two sides of this story that I’m telling, which is on the one hand this enormous sense of potential and this kind of soaring aspiration, which is so obvious in the skyline – perhaps that’s the iconic image of this moment in China. But in the foreground you’ll notice there’s this kind of ambiguous figure, it’s somebody who’s wearing a uniform and he’s looking through binoculars. You’re not really sure what it is that’s he looking at, and you don’t really know whom he represents.
In many ways that character, that person, whoever he is, stands in for, I think for many of us, for the kind of strange role that the state plays in all of our lives here. You never quite know who is who and whom they represent, you never quite know what they’re looking at and why. And yet I found something in that photo kind of… there was a kind of embedded contradiction there. It’s this beautiful skyline with a blue sky and then this odd image in the foreground, and so much of what I find thrilling about China and what has been such a part of my life is strange and inexplicable contradictions.
What role do you think Shanghai has in the country today? I suppose the go-to description is that Beijing is the political and cultural heart of the country, whereas Shanghai is the financial heart, but what’s your take?
I’ve always felt that the defining feature of Shanghai for me has always been its relationship to the outside world. In many ways it’s obviously much more comfortable being a part of the planet than Beijing ever has been. Beijing is, in literal ways and metaphorical ways, a desert city, and that defines who it is. It’s much closer to Mongolia spiritually and physically than it is to Hong Kong, and Shanghai has always been at the center of this push and pull with the outside world: How much do we want to be foreign? How much do we want to make the foreigners work for us? How much do we ultimately want to participate in the games that they set the rules for? I’ve watched over the course of the last 10 years.
There was a moment when people felt that the center of gravity had shifted to Beijing very squarely and I think it’s more ambiguous now. I should probably hone that idea, but I’ve been struck by the fact that it used to be that if you wanted to be a player you had to be in Beijing, and that’s not as clear now. There’s people all over the place who now have an impact on the national conversation in a way that was never possible otherwise. There’s a great line from Mao. Mao used to say that Beijing was “Beijing is like a crucible in which one cannot but be transformed.” Every eccentric person in every small town everywhere that was rubbing up against the edges of what the town could tolerate, they were all trying to get to Beijing.
It’s a little less clear now. I have friends for Beijing for instance who have moved to Shandong province partly to get away from pollution, but also partly because it’s possible to do that now; you can live online, you can be connected in a way that doesn’t require you to be in the capital.
When you were considering stories to include in the book, was there anything in particular that you were looking for beyond them matching these broader themes you mentioned?
One of the things I was very conscious of was, for me, this is one narrative, this is one big story. I never wanted to write a series of disconnected profiles because from my perspective there’s this one tremendous narrative that is going on and all of these people and stories that make up this story are like the strands of a single rope, and so there was a logic to them. There were a lot of people and events that I ended up not including in the book that I pursued at one point or another, but if they didn’t ultimately illuminate what I was trying to understand, which was: What is possible as an individual and what is not possible – that was the test. If they taught me something about that, they were part of that story.
I’ll give you an example: For awhile I was spending time with people who were involved with psychoanalysis in China; they were students of Freud. I got interested in that because in a sense psychoanalysis is this process of interrogating the mind and trying to understand who you are. As an idea, it’s actually still sort of important to the concept of the book, which is that every individual mind has idiosyncrasy and there’s a dignity in that, and that in the end you have to recognize that. But in the end the stories themselves, they weren’t part of this.
When you’re writing a book, everybody has to do some work. A colleague of mine at The New Yorker calls them ‘donkeys’. It sounds pejorative, but of course it’s not at all, he says that with the greatest respect: A donkey is a beast of burden without which you will die. What he means is that you have to have these characters who carry you along and can carry the reader along and carry these broader issues, these bigger questions on their backs, and that’s kind of the process, that was what the writing’s about. It was about finding these people who have the depth and the weight to be able to bring people along. I’ve often had in my mind this kind of fantasy event where I would get the central characters of my book on stage one time – I sort of feel like the room would explode. [laughs]
Organise a dinner party with them all…
Right, exactly. My wife and I have talked about that. It would be like the world’s craziest dinner party if we had just everybody there, I’d love it.
How do you feel about the nature of being a foreign correspondent, being a foreigner writing about China, having this outsider’s perspective? What are the benefits or the challenges that come with that?
China is an extraordinary story. It’s an extraordinary story because… well, a few reasons. It has been ever since Marco Polo copped to the story, if he made it. For one thing as a journalist, it’s an amazing place to work for a simple reason, which is that it has the rare combination of being important and safe. That’s much rarer than one expects when you look at the global landscape of journalism, and I think those of us who work here underestimate how able we actually are to do certain kinds of work. We’re able to travel fairly broadly; we’re able to go to all kinds of places that were impossible to go to 25 years ago. But then of course there are these hard limits about where you can’t go: You can’t go to Tibet, it’s very hard to go to Xinjiang in any meaningful way. But if you take the realm that you are able to operate in, then basically you can go as deep as you’re able and willing to dig. It sort of rewards your own energy and your own persistence.
That’s not the case in some countries. I know friends in Japan who’ve lived in Japan for years and years and can count on one hand the number of times they’ve gone to somebody’s home, and China’s not that way. I’ve always found China to be open in a way that I think defies the stereotypes. You know, the stereotype is Beijing is a city of walls and that you’re always dealing with shadows on the wall and you never know what you’re dealing with. I think that those kinds of analyses are often written by people who didn’t spend a long enough time here. One of the reasons the language is so seductive is that, to a degree I think even more so than other languages, it opens up the place to you, and you never reach the bottom of it. You continue to dig and you continue to dig and there’s just more and more sand.
At some point you reach this moment in your life as a student of China when you discover that you have learnt so much that you can’t possibly quit, but you have learnt so little that you don’t really know much at all. From my perspective, that’s where you really start hitting your stride. There is a great line that somebody said that when you get to China and you’ve been here for a week you think you can write a column, then you’ve been here for a month and you feel like you’re ready to write a book, then you’ve been here for a year and you realize you can’t write anything at all because you’ve just then discovered how much you really don’t understand and how much you still have to learn, and that’s definitely the case with me. So it took me eight years before I could write a book. [laughs]
I don’t know if that answers the question about being a foreign writer here. I can tell you that one of the joys of writing in China is that, and this again sounds counterintuitive, but oftentimes people imagine that China’s this place with obviously this enormous bureaucracy, it’s a place that invented bureaucracy, they think that you must spend all your time dealing with public relations, gate keepers and people trying to keep you out, and I think that probably applies to a certain kind of journalism, but not to the kind of journalism that we do at The New Yorker and not to the kind of writing I do, which is oftentimes if somebody is throwing up all these obstacles in your path, you just go around it a different way and can often get to the story from another direction.
There are people who are willing to talk to you, I find, with extraordinary openness, partly because, on the most basic level, there’s so many people here that most people haven’t told their story to anyone, ever. Oftentimes I come upon people and it’s a little bit like I feel like I’ve rolled away the boulder from a cave and inside there’s just this treasure house, and there’s all of these stories.
Yesterday, as an example, I love this moment, I was at M on the Bund again for a lunch event and there were a few of us there talking about our books and a woman in the audience asked a question. In the course of asking her question, she was talking about the Cultural Revolution and about the ways in which a person can have their political verdict reversed. So for instance, if you were considered a youpai [right-winger], then you can be pingfan’ed [politically rehabilitated] and brought back, and she was drawing these really interesting distinctions between the different kinds of restoration and she said: “Take my boss for instance. My boss, after he was restored, they owed him all of his back pay, which they brought to him in a suitcase.”
Then she went on with her story, and I was like, that moment right there is a like a three act play. Amazing. In one sentence she told the story of clearly the most awful rupture in a man’s life, then the arduous, heartbreaking process of rebuilding his reputation and earning his place again as a citizen, and then the kind of wonderful, fantastical accounting that a person must do in order to be able to say: “Ok, this is what we owe you for the years in which you were in the wilderness.” And you know he wasn’t going to let one fen of that money [laughs] be unaccounted for. I love that story.
I know it’s risky business and notoriously difficult making predictions about China, so I won’t ask you for that…
[Laughs] 7.5%! Oh, sorry…
…but are there any broad trends you need to be looking at if you want to be tracking the country’s progress?
There are two issues that I didn’t write about in the book that I think are enormous that are on the horizon. One is about ethnic diversity and how China continues to try to extend the benefits of its rise to people who are members of ethnic minorities. This is an enormous issue and we haven’t really begun to deal with it yet. And I say that as an American. I’m acutely aware as an American of how handicapping it is to be part of a culture that hasn’t figured out how to be as inclusive as it can be.
Then the other issue, of course, is about the environment. It used to be when I moved here… Actually I should say when I was here as a student in 1998, I did a long project about the role that little, tiny environmental organizations were playing in people’s lives; they were starting to mobilize people in a way that they hadn’t been before. They were starting to think of themselves as potentially capable individual citizens – you could go out and plant trees and play a role in environmental issues in a way that you couldn’t really before.
If you fast-forward to today, it used to be that if you talked about the environment you were some sort of oddball; that you weren’t paying attention to the main event. The main event was about fazhan [development] and everything else was secondary. That’s changed. It’s now that, from my perspective, knowing about the environment and knowing about your health in China is a measure of sophistication, it’s become a kind of status symbol. To know enough to know that you should be conscious of the air is… it’s chic.
That’s a healthy thing, but I think it also can change the contours of a country pretty quickly. If you look back historically, oftentimes one of the issues through which people articulate a new kind of politics is through the issue of the environment because it’s an apolitical issue that touches everybody, and so it has this strange combination of being both inclusive but not confrontational, and that’s powerful. So I’d say those two issues are tremendous.
Then in the background of course, is the question of whether the economic rise can continue to satisfy people’s expectations and to be inclusive enough so that the grand bargain of China, which is ‘we will allow you to get rich, if you allow us to continue to maintain the political system’, we’ll have to see if that bargain can obtain. But I’ve been surprised and impressed with the degree to which this country is adaptable and it manages to redefine success and redefine what it means to be the Communist Party constantly. I would expect that the Communist Party that we see today is different than the Communist Party we’ll see in five years or 10 years because they will continue to redefine what it means to be them; that’s the best way to survive.
Is there anything in particular you miss about China now that you’ve moved back to the US?
Yeah, there’s a lot actually. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve had dumplings for three out of the last four meals. The thing fundamentally that I miss is the sense that this place is fundamentally surprising – I mean that in the sense that it’s not just that you don’t know what’s going to happen when you walk out the door everyday, nobody know what’s going to happen when you walk out the door. One of the parts that’s always been distinctly Chinese is that – you could make an argument now that Egypt is having this moment too – China is this country that is built on this enormous mound of history, and yet you don’t really get the feeling that any given day is going to adhere by the rules that were functioning perfectly the day before. I do miss that small sense of daily surprise—at home we call it ‘the cucumber principle’, which is that you would go out the door to buy a cucumber from your house in China and half the time something strange would happen along the way, and you just don’t know why. Sometimes it’s fun; sometimes it’s sad stuff.
One of the last experiences that we had before we moved I didn’t end up putting into the book, but I was just going to run errands, I was on my way to the bank, and there was a guy who collapsed on the sidewalk in front of me, he was having a seizure. It was an interesting moment because people didn’t know whether to stop and help or not. I happened to be at that moment working on this chapter in the book about Xiao Yueyue, the little girl down in Foshan who was hit by a van, and people were struggling in that moment to decide whether to help or not and how to participate; they were scared it was going to hurt them and they were scared they were get cheated; they were scared that the rule of law was not going to come to their side if they participated. And so on the street in Beijing, I watched that unfold, right there. People were deciding whether to stop or not, whether to touch him, whether to handle him, whether that was going to get them into trouble; they didn’t know whether he was trying to cheat them.
I ended up spending some time with this guy and a couple days later he called and said that he wanted to go back home; he was from a really remote area of Guangdong province and he was trying to get back home but he didn’t have any money for the train. I met up with him and I helped him get a train ticket back to Guangdong, but along the way we had these conversations about what it’s like. He was partially disabled, he’d been hit in a workplace accident 10 years ago – he showed me the big scar on his head – and ever since then he’d had seizures.
It was one of these moments where his life inhabited the real extremes of human experience; it was a very rough way to live. I learnt a lot about what it felt like to be disabled in China. I said: “Why do people not stop and help you?” and he said: “I understand why they don’t stop: they think I’m trying to cheat them, so I don’t blame them.” I said: “What do foreigners do?” He said: “Well sometimes foreigners will stop, but most of the time they’ll stop and they’ll just turn me on my side and then they’ll keep going.” [Laughs] That was the kind of thing – I suppose it would happen to you in our own countries too – but there’s usually structures that exist to help people in marginal situations, so you don’t encounter them in such a raw way that you do in China. Then he called me a couple weeks later when he got home because I’d said: “Call me when you get home you know because I just want to know you get back to your house.” He was like: “Yeah, yeah I’m home, come on down we’ll have a feast.” It was not easy to be him; it’s just not.
It’s strange to say that I miss that, but I do miss this sort of intellectual stimulation that comes from grappling with these big questions that China is confronting – they’re all right out in the open, you don’t have to look very hard to see them, and that’s amazing, actually. If you come from a culture like yours [the UK], like the United States where a lot of the big questions we’ve thought about ourselves were sort of solved or settled – What is your relationship to the state? What kind of religion is going to dominate the country? – these sorts of things have been settled questions for awhile in our countries, but they’re wide open in China, and it’s a privilege to kind of participate in that conversation. I mean that’s one of the things that’s been most gratifying. ♦
Interviewer: Chris Russell, Editorial Director of SinoMedia, on Twitter at @chris_shanghai.